Saturday, January 21, 2012

Want to race? Not so fast!

Politics, economics, regulation throttle the on-track action.

In April of 1995, the Kansas-based Sunflower Rod and Custom Association joined forces with the fledgling National Hot Road Association. The result of the alliance was the very first national drag racing championship event.

Art Arfons – who would go on to become a land speed record legend – unleashes an early version of his Green Monster on the Great Bend air field.

The SRCA had begun racing activities in a manner charmingly reflective of the era in which they took place. Basically, the group of hot rodders went to the city government of Great Bend, Kansas, and said, “Hey, you know that old air field nobody's used since World War Two? Can we use that as a race track?” The city said yes, and a chain of events was set into motion that has led to today's elite touring NHRA drag racing series.

There's never been a question about interest in staging races in the United States, for racing in all of its great formats: drag, stock car, open wheel, rallying, road courses, land speed records, and anything else you can think of that can host an engine and push a vehicle into motion.

But the days of simply asking if some unused turf can be used for motorsport are long gone.

When NASCAR turned an eye toward a return to the Golden State of California in the 1990s, the organization knew it faced an uphill challenge in building a new track. But there was little choice – the tracks at Riverside and Ontario had long since been consumed by the state's voracious taste for commercial real estate expansion. So the only choice was to start from scratch.

The late Les Richter in his NFL playing days. Richter was such a force on the field that the Dallas Texans traded him to the Los Angeles Rams for eleven players!

NASACR made a smart decision in reassigning NFL legend Les Richter from his post overseeing the sanctioning body's operational duties. Richter took to the challenge of making a racetrack happen within the marketing striking distance of Los Angeles, teaming with Roger Penske to construct an oval on the then-shuttered Kaiser Steel Mill outside Fontana. To say Richter faced near Herculean challenges would be an understatement. But Richter and Penske were able to sell the local community on the idea that the racetrack would lead to a community revitalization at a time of local economic stagnation. Construction began in 1995, and wrapped up in 1996 – blazing-fast considering the myriad aspects that had to be dealt with, including an Environmental Protection Agency mandate covering removal of toxic soil and related materials leftover from the site's steel production days. By mid-1997, NASCAR was back on track with racing action in California.

 Autoclub Speedway, formerly known as California Speedway. The water tower in the center of the oval is a remainder from the site's days as Kaiser Steel Mill.

A similar construction tale is playing out right now south of Austin, Texas, as the new Circuit of The Americas follows a troubled path into existence, chasing the goal of hosting a Formula 1 race in November of this year. It's true, the Texas racetrack creation has faced the usual modern laundry list of challenges: a need for endorsement by the Austin City Council to obtain critical funding (a move bitterly challenged by opponents), on top of site planning issues and a dispute among the project's management group.

“Keep digging!” is sometimes heard as driver encouragement. The expression is literal as workers at Circuit of The Americas stare down a November completion deadline.

On top of all that, of course, is the task of dealing with Formula 1 and its shrewd commander in chief, Bernie Ecclestone. “Machiavellian” is a term that surfaces quite often when descriptions are sought for the murky waters that make up the Formula 1 ocean, and books have been written about the tangled web of the business of F1.

“I wouldn't want to put my money down that it will happen,” Ecclestone said in November of the Austin race. When your entire goal is to build a racetrack to host a United States-based Formula 1 event, having Ecclestone issue comments like that is not comforting. But on December 7, 2011, news came that the construction that had been halted weeks earlier had resumed, and that the United States Grand Prix had secured its place on the 2012 F1 schedule. And it goes without saying: Ecclestone had received all the financial incentives he demanded in turn.

IndyCar competition on the streets of Baltimore in 2011. One and done?

Even when the difficulty of track construction is removed from the equation, getting a race off the ground can be daunting. In 2011 IndyCar competed in the Baltimore Grand Prix, a street circuit event that saw the open wheel cars blasting through the city's downtown. The city was thrilled with the economic impact of the event, estimated to have generated $50 million overall. But the race organizers failed to come up with the $1.5 million fee due to the city by the end of the year, so the 2012 event finds itself in limbo.

If you like the idea of stepping in as Baltimore Grand Prix promoter, at least you won't have to build the track.